How To Do Squats: The Ultimate Guide

how to do squats properlyRegardless of your fitness goals, squats NEED to be part of your training routine — that is, if you are serious about getting results.

What type of results? Well, squats are excellent for building muscle, gaining strength, improving function, increasing flexibility and boosting metabolic rate.

Squats recruit many major muscle groups including: quadriceps, hamstrings, low and mid back, and glutes. These muscle groups make up the majority of your body, which makes the squat a tremendous “bang for your buck” exercise.

Unfortunately, even with all of these amazing benefits, the majority of trainees still choose not to do them. Their excuses are:

1) “Squats require hard work.” Now, I personally love working hard and reaping the rewards of it. But fear of hard work has many trainees shamelessly running away from the squat rack and towards the useless leg extension machine in a hurry.

2) “Squats are dangerous.” This is usually just a fake excuse made up by people who don’t want to work hard (see reason 1).

Now, for those of who aren’t allergic to working hard, read on! I’m going to show you exactly how to do squats properly so you can maximize your results safely and effectively.

Unracking Phase

Bar set up- The bar height should be set between your nipples and your collarbones.

Bar placement- A low bar position will help you squat heavier, but it can beat up your shoulders and bicep tendons. That is precisely why I recommend keeping the bar high up on the traps.

Grip- Grab the bar with as narrow a grip as you comfortably can. Keeping your hands narrow makes it easier to keep your upper back tight.  This brings us to our next point.

Get tight- Actively flex the muscles in your upper back while lifting your chest up. This will lock in a strong and safe spinal position during the lift.

Actual unracking- Set both feet directly under the bar with a shoulder width stance. Next, externally rotate your feet between 5-20 degrees. Do a mini squat to unrack the bar.

Step back- Take ONE step back with the left leg followed by ONE step back with the right leg. Be sure to reset your feet to the shoulder width stance.

Now you’re ready to squat!

Positioning

dog-squat form

Although Fido is violating my “don’t round your back” rule, he still has better squat form than the average gym rat does

Neck- I know your high school gym teacher wanted you to look up at the ceiling.  This is incorrect squat form.

Instead, be sure to keep your neck in a neutral position.

This can be best accomplished by locking your eyes on the point where the wall meets the floor.

Low Back- Your lower back must remain neutral throughout each rep. To ensure this position is maintained, consciously squeeze your chest up.

Lowering Phase

Break at the hips first- During the initiation of a squat, you have two choices on where to “break”, the hip or the knee. This point is argued to death, but for no good reason.

The ONLY way to squat effectively and safely is to use a hip break. This essentially means that you will begin the squat by sticking your butt back instead of shooting your knees forward.

This allows better activation of the glutes and hamstrings and puts less stress on the knees. Win-win.

Maintain proper knee alignment- Your knees must track inline with your toes. To be specific, keep your knees inline with your second toe throughout the entire range of motion.

Stay on your heels- If you respect the “break at the hips first” rule, this rule will be easier to adhere to. Staying on your heels is critical for knee health and hamstring/glute activation.

Lower to parallel or slightly lower- Most squatters only do half squats. This is a big mistake. Half squats don’t allow adequate recruitment of all muscles involved. This leads to muscle imbalances, which will contribute to tightness, loss of function, and increased risk of injury.

Notice how her hips are below her knees.

Full squats (below parallel) are a completely different story. For those of you who don’t know, a full squat is achieved when your hips reach a position that is lower than your knees.

In other words, when looking from the side, the crease of your hip will be at a lower than the horizontal plane that your knees are in.

Lifting Phase

Use a controlled rebound- Don’t get me wrong! You should not violently bounce while in the bottom position. Instead, use a controlled yet quick change of direction.

This will allow you to take advantage of the stretch reflex while still remaining safe and in control.

Keep your back angle constant- If you were watching yourself from the side, you’d notice that for every inch your hips rise there should be an inch rise in your shoulders as well.

It is all too common to witness guys shoot up their hips and essentially finish their squat by doing a “good morning” movement.

Keep your knees out- It is during the lifting phase that most trainees allow their knees to collapse inwards. Just keep your feet planted into the ground and focus on pushing your knees out.

Push from your heels- This point is so important that I decided to reiterate it again here. Keep your weight on your heels and drive yourself up from there.

The Repeat Phase

Lock your knees out in the top- If you’re training for maximal strength, go to full extension and pause for a second before beginning your next repetition. This allows you to reset your position and breath.

Don’t lock your knees out in the top- If you’re training for pure hypertrophy (muscle building), endurance or metabolic work, do not lock your knees on in the top range. Instead, rise up until your knees are 95% locked out and immediately drop into the next repetition.

Here’s a video I shot to give you a visual of many of the points made in this article:

With the exceptions of “unracking the bar” and “bar placement”, these tips are critical for every style of squatting. From bodyweight squats to KB goblet squats to barbell squats, these tips will ensure maximal results with minimal risks.

If you like this How To Do Squats- The Ultimate Guide article, please press the “like” and tweet buttons at the top of the article and leave a comment below.

If I receive enough feedback, I will do another “Ultimate Guide” article on the deadlift (or any other complex exercise or your choice), in the near future. Thanks!

Dedicated to your success,

John Alvino

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Comments

  1. Great article! this was so helpful and pointed out a couple things I was doing wrong which will now be corrected. I’ll look further on your site if you’ve done 1 on deadlifts – if not, that would be really appreciated. Cheers, Dave

    • John Alvino says:

      @Dave: Awesome Dave. I haven’t posted a how to guide for deadlifts yet. But due to popular demand, I will do so. Thanks for the feedback

  2. Lloyd hardy says:

    Great demonstration. As an older lifter – over 30 years of lifting – who has never got squats right this really helps.I am always worried about hurting my back which I have done many times doing squats. Now I think I see why and look forward to improving my technique, fitness and strength.

  3. Awesome tips, I could visualize them perfectly while I was reading. Do you know anything about actual knee structure? I heard that not going all the way to 90 degrees is bad for your knees, because it puts the pressure on the joint instead of the muscle. Got any insight into that situation, or is that something that some guy full of hot air just said?

    • John Alvino says:

      @dethmaul: Hi Dethmaul, actually, I agree with your friend. A full squat is better for knee health. Also, the mobility and structural balance required to squat fully is important for overall physical health. If you can’t get down there while maintaining good position, work on it. Hope this helps you out.

  4. Thanks, this was really helpful. I hadn’t been squatting between my legs before. It’s a ton easier on my knees now.

  5. Good job! Solid technique and great presentation!

  6. Kristine Driscol says:

    Thanks for posting this! I was at the gym doing squats (granted I’m still somewhat new, having only been doing it for maybe 6 weeks) and this guy came up to me and told me my form way completely wrong. Funny enough, what he told me was opposite of everything you wrote & what my trainer friend taught me. I took it with a grain of salt but nonetheless I still wanted to make sure I was originally doing it correct. Thank!

  7. Outstanding. Cannot wait for you deadlift breakdown :)

  8. This is awesome! Thanks for putting this together. I have a question on shoes. I notice you’re lifting in what looks like running or cross-training shoes. I’ve been told that flatter, harder-soled shoes, such as Chuck Taylors or indoor soccer shoes, are better for power lifting because they don’t have foam that compresses. Any thoughts on this?

  9. Treble909 says:

    Hi! Where/what angle should my back be at??
    I’m sending my butt back first and breaking at the hips first, keeping my shoulders back and chest up but I bend A LOT at my hips. I tend to reach forward to balance myself and I’m definitely leant over my legs, my back isn’t at anywhere near 90degrees to my hips/thighs.
    Am I doing that wrong? How can I fix it if so?
    Thanks! xx

  10. Hi john where in the glutes do you feel if your doing a proper squat? I think I’m doing them properly but I don’t feel the burn only on my thighs. Thanks

    • John Alvino says:

      @adriana: Hi Adriana, if you want to emphasize your glutes, be sure to sit back and use hip drive when you squat. Also, unlike some exercises/muscle groups, you will not feel a burning sensation in the glutes during squats. That being said, delayed onset muscle soreness should let you know that you worked your glutes the day prior.

  11. Kevin Gibbs says:

    Hi.

    I’m having some difficulties understanding one thing. I’ve squatted like this for years, until today my gong-fu teacher pointed out that my bum sticks out too much. Well, damn. Ok, so sticking my chest out! Until.. he pointed out that “it you stand like that, what do you see?” and the answer was… an overtly arched back. That’s not natural.:

    He instructed me to “suck” my hip forward and then go into the squat, still hip first. My god… it was hard. Is this the correct way to do it?

    • John Alvino says:

      There are variations of squats that are appropriate for different purposes. The squat I’m teaching here is great for size and strength when barbell squatting. For pure functionality, your gong-fu teacher’s style of squatting is totally fine.

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